Gordon Conway on Orgenics

gordon-conwayMark Henderson at the Times Online has just published an article about Genetic Engineering and Organic Agriculture. Organic farmers must embrace GM crops if we are to feed the world, says scientist. The scientist is non other than Agricultural Ecologist Sir Gordon Conway, and he argues that Organic Ag should be open to GE crops, which we here like to call Orgenic agriculture.

Farmers, he said, should use the best aspects of organic methods and GM technology to maximise yields while limiting damage to ecosystems. He accepted that organic lobbyists would regard the idea as heresy, but said that genetic engineering could create better organic crops than those grown today with further environmental benefits.
“What frustrates me is there is a real potential for combining GM technology and organic approaches,” said Professor Conway, who stepped down last year as chief scientific adviser to the Department for International Development. “To say that is probably heretical, but there would be real benefits if we got over this notion that GM is somehow not organic.”

He continues, explaining how the pure philosophical basis and underlying assumptions may work against the overall goal. And I’m glad to see that he pointed out how conventional breeding is just as artificial as genetic engineering. (It’s called artificial selection for a reason!)

While the processes used to create GM crops are unnatural, so too is the conventional breeding that has created today’s non-GM varieties. Both methods involve genes that are natural in origin, but genetic engineering can create crops with significant advantages.
The rigidity of organic certification rules can thus work against sustainability by blocking the use of helpful technologies, Professor Conway said.

Current Organic orthodoxy doesn’t currently allow for it, and organic customers aren’t too likely to go for it, yet Conway is optimistic about the future of such an approach.

“I think we are going to end up in a very interesting hybrid world in which we choose the technology because it is appropriate, not because of where it has come from. And 2050 will be like that: it will not be completely high-technology, and it will not be a completely back-tonature world.”

Can we do it in 40 years? I wonder what could be accomplished in 10.

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Written by Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is a Postdoctoral Scholar at UC Riverside and works on Citrus genetics.

2 comments

  1. Depending on what comes out in the next 5 years it could be doable in the next 10 – the only commercial release I can think of right now that might have a chance at changing minds is drought tolerance, however academic projects on improved nutrition and disease resistance may well be able to make inroads where industrial Ag simply cannot (primarily due to the inherent distrust of industrial Ag by organic producers, but also as most things being produced in the next 5 years are either linked hand in hand with chemical useage (herbicide resistance, and HR stacked with other useful traits) or have already been on the market for around a decade and havent made any inroads yet (Bt – which if any big bio product was going to crossover really should have)
    Roll on golden rice (and GR2) alongside flood tolerant rice.
    In 40 years? Anything is possible in that timeframe, look at Ag 40 years ago compared to today, I figure that by that point breeding and biotech will be practically indistinguishable (and who knows how targetted mutational work will go – I wonder how the world would take to a gene from another organism simply being mutated into junk DNA rather than shipped in (or if you used targetted mutation to change a corn gene into a bacterial homolog in terms of the protein produced)- it’d currently completely bypass all the regulatory hurdles.) However it could also be that in 40 years we still sit exactly where we do with regards to organic/conventional Ag – perhaps it will become economically feasible to take a middle ground utilizing GMOs in an organic type setting without actually calling it organic – a combination of increased commodity prices and increased input prices may turn things this way.

  2. It seems as though the word “Orgenics” has been created to further deceive and confuse the public, by creating a new term that sounds and is spelled very similarly to ORGANICS! “You will be able to fool some of the people with this play on words some of the time, but you will NEVER fool ALL of the people ALL of the time!” We’re smarter that THAT!
    Gordon Conway seems to be an intelligent man and I’m wondering why, such an intelligent man would advocate GE and Biotech Foods in lieu of the overwhelming evidence of the detrimental effects of such foods on living things. Please get up-to-speed by reading and viewing the following articles and videos about GMO Foods!
    http://www.yournaturalcancercures.com/cancer-diet-3/the-future-of-food AND ESPECIALLY Jeffrey Smith Video, entitled, “Everything You Need to know about Genetically Modified Foods”, at this link

    )
    http://www.responsibletechnology.org/blog/1782
    Thank you for your time to get educated!
    Annie

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